Genetic adaptation in chimpanzee subspecies

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Aida Andres

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

Aida Andres's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Francois Balloux

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

Francois Balloux's Profile Picture

Project Description:

Except for humans, all other great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans) are critically endangered. Recent work has improved our understanding of the demographic and long-term adaptive history of non-human great apes, but little is known about their more recent genetic adaptations. Knowing how these species have adapted to their ecological niches is critical to understand their evolution and adaptive potential, and it is urgently required given the rapid changes to their habitats, which puts them all on the brink of extinction.

Preliminary results from our group, based on whole genome sequences of individuals from sanctuaries in Africa, suggest that the different chimpanzee subspecies differ in the degree to which they have experienced recent, local adaptations. This is an interesting observation, but thus far we have been unable to determine which environmental pressures were responsible for these genetic adaptations.

In this project, we will investigate chimpanzee genetic adaptations using new genomic datasets obtained from samples of known geographic origin and for which key environmental variables (e.g. climate, diet or pathogen exposure) have been directly assessed. We are interested in inferring which environmental variables can best explain the previously identified genetic adaptations, and to combine genetic and environmental data to identify new instances of differential adaptation among subspecies. We will also extend the investigation of patterns of adaptation to other species (gorillas and orangutans), to compare the evidence of adaptation across lineages.

Policy Impact of Research:

Like many other species, chimpanzee groups are under selective pressure to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. We aim to identify the most relevant phenotypic and adaptive differences among subspecies, which can impact the management of natural and captive chimpanzees. Further, our insights will apply not only to recent adaptation in chimpanzees, but more generally to populations of endangered species in rapidly changing habitats.

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